News Column

A new take on classical

October 13, 2013


Oct. 13--The Italian term "chiaroscuro" refers to the contrast between light and dark. The Chiaroscuro Trio -- a chamber group made up of two UW-Eau Claire professors -- tries to embrace that term in its music.

Elizabeth Petillot, a contralto vocalist, and her husband Aurelien Petillot, who plays viola -- both Department of Music professors at UW-Eau Claire -- paired with former colleague and current piano professor at the University of Illionois at Carbondale, Yuko Kato, to create the trio several years ago. And in July, the group released its first CD, "New People," which is comprised of world-premier recordings of contemporary American works.

"It's a very eclectic and beautiful set of music for voice, viola and piano," Auerlien said. "Chiaroscuro means the interaction and opposition of light and dark, and we feel that's what our instrumentation and music can be. Sometimes you find lightness in the dark and darkness in the light, so we find that interesting and try to carry that over to our music."

Elizabeth described the group's music as "classical alternative" but each member of the trio admitted it is hard to pinpoint an exact style of the chamber trio.

On "New People," each recording displays a different kind of tone and style. The first track, "The Rain is Full of Ghosts," displays very romantic sounds, but then the album contains some jazzy, cabaret-style overtones in sets such as "Erotica." The title track, "New People," then goes to a very dramatic, almost operatic place, and is described by Aurelien as almost "non-human."

"We want to be as diverse as possible in our music," Kato said via Skype. "A lot of the music on the CD is written recently, so the works on this particular CD are contemporary, but that's not all we play. We don't want to limit ourselves to just playing new music or just playing what people know. I think we're always kind of interested in exploring all the possibilities."

In fact, finding music written for the Chiaroscuro Trio's instrumentation is a challenge in and of itself. Auerlien said if someone were to do a Google search for composers who write for contralto, viola and piano the only composer they'll stumble upon is Johannes Brahms. However, after a lot of research, the trio has managed to find over 150 works written by a number of composers for their specific instrumentation.

The Chiaroscuro Trio uses that research not only to their advantage by giving themselves a wide variety of music to play, but also provide the sheet music on their website for other similar groups to use.

"There's a lot out there, so much so that we could have a new program every time we meet," Aurelien said. "It's kind of this treasure trove that's untapped and we're just seeing the top of it. We haven't amassed the whole trove yet or even come close to enjoying all it has to offer."

Because a trio of a contralto, viola and piano is so rare, the Chiaroscuro Trio has to work extra hard to book performances. And because they are balancing four schedules -- the three member's plus the Petillot's 4-year-old son's -- from two different states, it can be tough to schedule appearances.

But the trio has already done performances from "New People" this year and is in the process of booking future gigs. The Chiaroscuro Trio is finalizing the details for a show in Eau Claire in February.

"We have a lot of ideas and hopes and dreams," Elizabeth said. "One of our immediate goals is to fill our calendar, and with our circumstances that's not always an easy endeavour. But right now we're really just interested in getting the word out about our music and having our CD listened to."

The CD can be purchased online at any major music retailer -- Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy and iTunes. The music can also be streamed on Spotify or purchased at The Local Store in Eau Claire.

"We want to get people curious about our music and we think they'll be happily surprised with what they find," Aurelien said. "There's stereotypes attached to classical music, but I don't think those stereotypes are what we do. Our music is rich and versatile and passionate.

"I always say it just takes one step to go to the concert hall and try our music out. I think it's a chance worth taking for everyone."

Syrstad can be reached at 715-833-9206, 800-236-7077 or


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